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Art History: What is Contemporary Art?

What is Contemporary Art Definition Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin, ‘Untitled (to Don Judd, colorist)’ 1–5 (1987)
Photo: Emma Hogan Photography

To many people, coming up with a contemporary art definition can be a troublesome task. While its title is simplistic and straightforward, its modern-day meaning is not as clear-cut. Fortunately, understanding what constitutes as “contemporary” is entirely possible once one traces the concept's history and explores its underlying themes.

What is contemporary art?

In its most basic sense, the term contemporary art refers to art—namely, painting, sculpture, photography, installation, performance, and video art—produced today. Though seemingly simple, the details surrounding this definition are often a bit fuzzy, as different individuals' interpretations of “today” may widely and wildly vary. Therefore, the exact starting point of the genre is still debated; however, many art historians consider the late 1960s (the end of modern art, or modernism) to be an adequate estimate.

History: Major Movements and Artists

Given its “art of today” definition, you may be surprised to hear that contemporary art actually has a relatively long history. To trace its evolution, let's take a look at the movements and major artists that compose its history.

Pop Art

Intended as a reaction to preceding modern art movements, contemporary art is thought to have begun on the heels of Pop Art. Pop Art was pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and was defined by an interest in portraying mass culture. It lasted roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s. And thanks to artists like Jeff Koons, it was reborn as Neo-Pop Art in the 1980s.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Jenny Holzer

Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, via Wikimedia Commons

Photorealism

Much like artists working in the Pop Art style sought to artistically reproduce objects, those involved with Photorealism aimed to create hyperrealistic drawings and paintings. Photorealists often worked from photographs, which enabled them to accurately reproduce portraits, landscapes, and other iconography. Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter often worked in this style.

Conceptualism

In turn, Pop Art also art helped shape Conceptualism, which fought against the idea of art as a commodity. Though this experimental movement is rooted in art of the early 21st century, it emerged as a formal movement in the 1960s and remains a major contemporary art movement today. In conceptual art, the idea behind a work of art takes precedence. Major conceptual artists include Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, and Jenny Holzer.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Ai Wei Wei

Ai Wei Wei, ‘COCA COLA VASE’ (2011)
Photo: Sotheby’s

Minimalism

Like Conceptualism, Minimalism materialized in the 1960s and is still prevalent today. According to the Tate, both movements “challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art.” What sets Minimalism apart, however, is that its simple, abstract aesthetic invites viewers to respond to what they see—not what they think a given work of art represents. Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin are some key Minimalist artists.

What is Contemporary Art Definition Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt, ‘Wall Drawings’ (2006)
Photo: Lisson Gallery

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